Looking for Jack Kerouac (2014)
Looking for Jack Kerouac by Barbara Shoup
It wasn’t Duke Walczak’s fault that I took off for Florida, like Kathy thought. The truth is, we started getting sideways with each other on our class trip to New York and Washington D.C. nearly a year earlier—which, looking back, is ironic since she was the one dead set on going.
From the author of Wish You Were Here and Stranded in Harmony (American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults), and Vermeer’s Daughter (a School Library Journal Best Adult Book for Young Adults).
In 1964, Paul Carpetti discovers Jack Kerouac’s On the Road while on a school trip to New York and begins to question the life he faces after high school. Then he meets a volatile, charismatic Kerouac devotee determined to hit the road himself. When the boys learn that Kerouac is living in St. Petersburg, Florida, they go looking for answers.
The best thing about writing a road trip novel is taking the road trip yourself, letting the landscape and people you see and the experiences you have along the way trigger insights about your characters and shape their story. I did the road trip for Looking for Jack Kerouac in three stages. The first was a trip to Hammond, Indiana, where I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s like my character, Paul. I cruised through my old neighborhood (Paul’s too), brand new when we moved into it, the trees that are now full-grown no more than saplings. I drove through nearby East Chicago with its oil refineries and steel mills. Booming in the 60’s when Paul worked there, it had fallen on hard times now—but the science fiction effect of the refineries all lit up at night looked exactly the same to me.
A second leg took my husband and me from Terre Haute to Nashville. Dying corn, grain elevators, no streetlights…Paul’s never been in the country before. “See Rock City,’ truckers pulled off to sleep. Churches, mostly Baptist: House of Love. Fort Campbell Screaming Eagles…they could get picked up by soldiers on the way to Nashville. And Nashville itself: “Music Row, Tootsies, band in the front window, wall to wall people, wild dancing…Paul dances with the first girl he’s danced with since Kathy became his girlfriend in the eighth grade, gets drunk and ends up sitting on the curb, reality crashing in on him.
Then down through Georgia with my friend Joan, remembering the Civil Rights Movement, the terrible violence in the South back then…Duke tries to help an elderly black man and nearly gets them all beaten up by a bunch of Rednecks. On to Florida. Spanish moss, fire towers, trailer parks, tall skinny pines, palm trees. Weeki Wachi. They meet a mermaid. How cool would that be?
We spent five days exploring St. Petersburg, imagining ourselves into Jack’s life there, looking for places where his and Paul’s life might intersect. Haslam’s Books, where Kerouac always moved his books to a more prominent position on the shelf…Paul could do that. Al Lang Field… Jack was a baseball nut; what if Paul was, too? I knew there was a girl in the book who worked at a diner. Perfect, I thought, when we discovered a diner at the end of the St. Petersburg Pier. Searching for a beautiful sunset, we discovered the cozy little beach community of Pass-a-Grille. Yes, I thought—she grew up there.
But it was finding the house where Kerouac lived with his mother that made my road trip resonate with meaning. An ranch house in a nondescript neighborhood. So small. His life there would have been so completely the opposite of his life in New York City and on the road. It hurt my heart to see this place where he arrived when the literary world had turned against him, when he’d alienated the friends who cared for him, when he’d given in to alcohol and bigotry and rage. I felt like I’d found Jack Kerouac myself, and I know my book was better for that moment of connection.